You know, they just don't make good mad scientist movies anymore. For a long time, from the 30s through the early 60s, mad scientists were all the rage. From Frankenstein to Dr. Jekyll to The Invisible man and onward, the public just couldn't get enough of these figures who dared to dream of godhood, who reached beyond the petty limitations of humanity for something greater. And when they fell short, their failures were just as spectacular as their dreams.
Perhaps the fascination during this era stemmed from the growing feeling that science was going to solve everything. For a while it seemed that in science lay humanity's greatest hope, but also its greatest danger. It was the new black magic, the new religion; something the average person on the street could never hope to understand, but that could nonetheless result in his death and the destruction of the entire planet. Scary stuff, indeed, as the powerful and unknown always is.
Likewise, perhaps the fascination and fear waned as the wonders of science became more commonplace. By the 70s, though there was still the fear of nuclear war and other destructive technologies, it no longer seemed quite so magical or unknown. When you're using microwaves--once scientific mumbo-jumbo suitable for creating scarred radioactive monsters in cinematic labs--to warm up your sandwich for lunch, the idea of Doc Frankenstein's spark-throwing apparatuses is not quite so scary anymore. Though every now and then a terrifying new idea would produce public unease and a few films (gene therapy, viruses run amok, and space exploration are still fertile fields), for the most part the mad scientist working alone in his lab expanding his own vistas of unspeakable knowledge is as quaint to us now as the horse and buggy.
Enter Stuart Gordon, who in 1986 took that horse and buggy, grafted six more legs onto the horse, strapped a couple of jet engines on the buggy, and took her out of a spin. The resulting wild, terrifying ride is one of the director's undisputed masterpieces, and if not the most faithful Lovecraft adaptation, certainly one of the most cinematically successful: From Beyond.
Gordon hits the ground running from the first frame of film, as we see young Dr. Crawford Tillingast (Jeffrey Combs) frantically preparing a Frankensteinian array of computers and alien-looking equipment for a mysterious experiment. He turns on the machine, which resonates with an eerie hum and causes him to clutch his forehead in pain. But the pain is forgotten a moment later, when he sees strange, eel-like creatures swimming in the air all around him--creatures in another plane who share the same space as we do, but whom we can't see and who can't see us. But with the Resonator thrumming, all is revealed, and one of the monsters attacks Combs, leading him to shut it (the fuck) off.
Frightened but excited, he runs to get his boss, the allusively named Dr. Pretorious; horror movie buffs know that the scientist who enticed Henry Frankenstein out of retirment in 1935's Bride of Frankenstein was also a Dr. Praetorius--who might have been an ancestor of this scientist, had the elder doctor not been so obviously, flamingly gay. Our modern Pretorious is most assuredly NOT gay, however; rather he is a sensualist, seeking the ultimate experience. Having exhausted the five senses of this plane with all the deviant sex he could imagine, he's looking for other planes to explore, other creatures to fuck. After all, who wants to eat chicken every day?
On learning of Combs's success, Pretorious rushes to the Resonator and flicks it back on, refusing to turn it off even when it becomes clear that something big is coming...FROM BEYOND! Ted Sorel as the good doctor gives a great "mad scientist out of control" performance here, and Combs flees in horror and madness, only to be caught by police (called by neighbors) who, after discovering the doctor's decapitated corpse, take Crawford away on charges of murder.
And then--the opening credits roll!
We next meet Dr. Katherine McMichaels (assayed by the very studious and professional looking Barbara Crampton, in full-on sexy librarian gear), a psychiatrist with unorthodox (even dangerous!) methods--a possibly mad doctor, but of the mind! She takes on Tillingast's case and quickly moves to recreate the experiment that broke his mind in order to find out what really happened to Dr. Pretorious. Accompanied by happy-go-lucky cop and former linebacker Bubba Brownlee (played wonderfully weird by Ken Foree of Dawn of the Dead fame), she and Crawford go back, repair the Resonator and repeat the experiment of that fateful night. Only this time there's something else waiting for them on the other side--something with unlimited power and Dr. Pretorious's sick personality--something that for its own pleasure wants to consume their very MINDS...
Stuart Gordon absolutely packs this movie to the top of every frame. The pacing is tight, and there is almost no wasted film, no throwaway scenes. Every minute of the movie propels the plot forward, and the straight-line narrative leaves you little time to catch your breath--you just have to hold on and go along for the ride. And what a ride it is! Jeffrey Combs simply OWNS the role of the young, tormented scientist here, and when the Resonator begins to effect a physical, Cronenbergian transformation on Tillingast, his horror and fascination come through the prosthetics in a very effective way. Vicar-fave scream queen Barbara Crampton is fantastic as well, playing the woman of science who can't help but pursue this dangerous knowledge in the hopes of helping humanity, but who then gets caught up in her own weaknesses, exploited by the now-otherworldly brilliance of Pretorious. (A word about her "sensual possession" scene: ZANG!) And Ted Sorel's performance as Pretorious is a thing of mad beauty, hearkening back to the classic mad scientists of the Universal horrors, but with a modern twist.
But the thing that really pushes this movie over the top into undisputed classic status is the inventive, sick, mind-blowing practical effects. In a world before CGI, when everything had to be sculpted and built and filmed with inventiveness and ingenuity, this is a tour de force. Almost as if he's trying to out-Cronenberg Cronenberg, Gordon pushes his makeup department (who deserved awards for this) into realms of body horror and ickiness previously unseen on the screen--and not seen since. (The only other movie that even comes close to this, imo, is the great and woefully underseen 1989 flick Society--directed by Brian Yuzna, who was a producer on From Beyond. Coincidence?) The absolutely jaw-dropping final battle between the transformed Tillingast and the mutated Pretorious is a thing that must be seen to be believed--a spectacle the likes of which even Miike can only stand back and applaud.
But while this is an effects fest, the script also bears its weight. There's some great stuff with themes of madness and obsession here that pervades the whole production. For instance, Dr. McMichael's father, a brilliant psychologist, ended his life in a sanatorium thanks to schizophrenia--it's this tragedy that drives his daughter in her obsessive search for a cure. Also, her own fear of going crazy underpins her drive, and when she is committed to the asylum late in the movie and set up for a harrowing bout of electroshock therapy, the horror is very deep and real. We understand why these brilliant people are risking everything, and that makes the horrors they unleash all the more tragic and effective.
I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the wonderful original score by Richard Band, great weird synth music, totally in keeping with the weird technology and spiraling insanity. Fantastic stuff, and I'm thinking of buying a CD.
In short, this movie is a one of a kind, gobsmackingly over-the-top, fantastically inventive entry into the mad scientist genre, and possibly the final word on the matter. Highest possible rating. And Mr. Gordon, thanks for the ride!
PS--The special edition dvd of From Beyond: Unrated Director's Cut hits stores next week; it has features out the wahzoo and a high-def transfer from original elements, not to mention previously excised scenes of grue and sexiness. So if you've always wanted to see this, or if you're a long time fan, there's never been a better time to buy! Order now!